The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State

by William McCants


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The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State by William McCants

The Islamic State is one of the most lethal and successful jihadist groups in modern history, surpassing even al-Qaeda. Thousands of its followers have marched across Syria and Iraq, subjugating millions, enslaving women, beheading captives, and daring anyone to stop them. Thousands more have spread terror beyond the Middle East under the Islamic State's black flag.

How did the Islamic State attract so many followers and conquer so much land? By being more ruthless, more apocalyptic, and more devoted to state-building than its competitors. The shrewd leaders of the Islamic State combined two of the most powerful yet contradictory ideas in Islam-the return of the Islamic Empire and the end of the world-into a mission and a message that shapes its strategy and inspires its army of zealous fighters. They have defied conventional thinking about how to wage wars and win recruits. Even if the Islamic State is defeated, jihadist terrorism will never be the same.

Based almost entirely on primary sources in Arabic-including ancient religious texts and secret al-Qaeda and Islamic State letters that few have seen - William McCants' The ISIS Apocalypse explores how religious fervor, strategic calculation, and doomsday prophecy shaped the Islamic State's past and foreshadow its dark future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250112644
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/09/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 496,716
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

William McCants directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism. McCants has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University and lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

Read an Excerpt

The ISIS Apocalypse

The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State

By William McCants

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 William McCants
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9270-5



On a mild August morning in 2014, a passerby noticed a black flag hanging outside a rundown duplex in suburban New Jersey. He could not make out the flag's black-and-white Arabic, but he recognized the design from the news. All summer, American televisions and computer screens had been filled with reports of horrific acts committed by a renegade al-Qaeda group in Syria and Iraq, accompanied by foreboding images of masked jihadists waving the flag. From Morocco to Mindanao, jihadists were fighting under the banner to realize their dark vision of God's rule on earth. Alarmed, the passerby sent a picture of the house and its flag to his friend Marc Leibowitz, a former Israeli paratrooper working as an investment manager in New Jersey, who promptly tweeted the picture and the address with the caption "Scary!" The prospect of a jihadist proudly displaying his colors in America guaranteed the tweet went viral. Leibowitz also informed Homeland Security.

When the police arrived, the flag's owner, Mark Dunaway, had no idea anyone had tweeted a picture of it. Dunaway had converted to Islam a decade ago, he explained, and flew the flag to mark Muslim holidays. "Every Muslim uses that black flag," he said. "You'll find it in any mosque in the world. I am an American citizen and I love my country, but I am also a Muslim and I use that flag to say I'm a Muslim." Still, Dunaway could see why people would be concerned, and he took down the flag. "I understand now that people turn on CNN and see the flag associated with jihad, but that's not the intention of that flag at all. It says 'There is only one god, Allah, and the prophet Muhammad is his messenger.' It's not meant to be a symbol of hate. Islam is all about unity and peace. I am not a part of any group like that, and I'm not anti-American. I love my country, but I am a Muslim."

Doubtless, Dunaway sincerely believed he did not support a militant group by flying the flag, as attested by the police's disinterest in the case and his neighbors' testimonials. Dunaway, like many Muslims and even Middle East experts, did not know the flag was designed by an al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State, after it proclaimed its statehood in 2006. It certainly wasn't in every "mosque in the world" as Dunaway thought. He and others were confused because the Islamic State had used terror and Twitter to advertise its brand and Islamic tradition to obscure its meaning.

Before the Islamic State declared itself the caliphate reborn that summer, it had been ambiguous about the flag's meaning and the cause it represented. Was it the flag of an Islamic state or the flag of the Islamic state, the caliphate that had once ruled land from Spain to Iran and whose prophesied return would herald the end of the world? The Islamic State encouraged the second interpretation but let the global community of jihadists read into the flag and the "state" what they would.

And read into them they did, with many taking up the flag and promoting the Islamic State as the fulfillment of prophecy long before it declared itself as such. The Islamic State's cause proved so compelling among jihadists that in 2014 the organization supplanted its former master, al-Qaeda, to lead the global jihadist movement. The spread of the flag, then, traces the spread of an idea and chronicles a major changing of the guard in the global jihadist movement over the past nine years. It also represents a revolution in how jihadists think about acquiring power and holding onto it.

Although it took nearly a decade to play itself out, the Islamic State was destined to fall out with al-Qaeda from the start. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri wanted to build popular Muslim support before declaring the caliphate. The Islamic State wanted to impose a caliphate regardless of what the masses thought. The dispute that divided parent from child was there from the Islamic State's conception.


In 1999, a hotheaded Jordanian street-tough-turned-jihadist, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, arrived in Qandahar, Afghanistan, seeking an audience with al-Qaeda's leaders. The young Zarqawi wanted to foment revolution in the Fertile Crescent, the land stretching from the eastern Mediterranean through Iraq. Zarqawi had been to Afghanistan before, just after the defeat of the Soviets in 1989. Too late to fight in the war, he soon returned to Jordan, where he failed as a terrorist and spent time behind bars for his effort. Now out of prison, Zarqawi had come back to Afghanistan to gather money and recruits for his cause.

Al-Qaeda's man in Qandahar, Sayf al-Adl, did not contact Zarqawi immediately. A former special forces colonel in the Egyptian military, Sayf had learned to watch and wait. He had Zarqawi followed.

Sayf's spy reported that Zarqawi frequently argued with other jihadists because of his extreme views on who should count as a good Muslim. Zarqawi especially disliked the Shi'a, one of the two major sects in Islam. Zarqawi, a Sunni, disagreed with the Shi'i doctrine that Muhammad's son-in-law and some of his male descendants were infallible and the only legitimate political and religious leaders of the early Muslim community. He also believed the modern Shi'i state of Iran colluded with the West to oppress Sunnis. When Sayf finally met Zarqawi, he found him a man of few words who sincerely wanted to bring Sunni Islam back to "the reality of human life." But Zarqawi did not have a lot of specific ideas for how to do it.

Sayf relayed his impressions of Zarqawi to his bosses in al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda's leader, Bin Laden, was the son of a wealthy Saudi building contractor, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a surgeon who had run an Egyptian terror group before merging part of it with al-Qaeda. Both men would oversee the 9/11 attacks, which were premised on their belief that the American infidel should be killed wantonly. But when it came to Muslims, Bin Laden and Zawahiri were more cautious. They believed Muslim support was crucial for driving the Americans out of the Middle East and establishing Islamic states. It wouldn't do to make enemies on all sides, especially over theological differences. Some have even speculated that Bin Laden's own mother grew up in a small Shi'i sect. Unity of mission rather than unity of mind was what was needed.

Despite their misgivings about Zarqawi's extreme views, Sayf recommended his bosses support the Jordanian hothead because they had so few Palestinian or Jordanian allies. They consented but would not invite Zarqawi to join al-Qaeda; he would have refused anyway. Rather, they coordinated and cooperated with him "in serving our common goals."

Sayf and his companions came up with a plan for Zarqawi to establish a training camp in Afghanistan to attract jihadists from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. Herat was chosen because of its proximity to the Iranian border, where it was easy to move men and materiel across. Over time, Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Iraqis arrived. Zarqawi also reached out to the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam organization in northern Iraq.

By the beginning of 2001, Zarqawi was no longer a jihadist neophyte in the eyes of Sayf. He had "begun to think and plan strategically for the future." Reading widely about world events and Islamic history, Zarqawi was struck by the figure of Nur al-Din Zengi, the ruthless medieval ruler of a dominion stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul in Iraq who had driven the crusaders from Syria.

Zarqawi undoubtedly admired Nur al-Din's ambition and remorseless efficiency. In one account, Nur al-Din had besieged a crusader citadel in Syria. The crusaders finally capitulated and approached Nur al-Din to discuss terms. "He would not consent to their request," as a medieval Muslim historian euphemistically put it. When crusader reinforcements arrived to lift the siege, they saw the citadel wall "and the dwelling of its inhabitants were entirely in ruins."

"[Zarqawi] was always asking for any book available about Nur al-Din and his protégé Saladin," Sayf recalled, referring to the ruler of Egypt who battled Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades. "I believe that what he read about Nur al-Din and his launch from Mosul in Iraq played a big role in influencing Abu Mus'ab [al-Zarqawi] in his decision to go to Iraq after the fall of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan" in 2001.

The "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" had been established in 1996 by the Taliban, conservative Sunnis who swept to power in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989. In medieval Islamic thought, an "emirate" (imara), or government of a region, is subordinate to the "state" (dawla), the empire ruled by the caliph. But in the absence of a caliph, jihadists today sometimes use "state" and "emirate" interchangeably when talking about the government of a country they'd like to create. The Taliban's emirate brought order to Afghanistan by strictly enforcing Islamic law. It also gave shelter to likeminded jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Zarqawi's outfit.

After the fall of the Taliban, Zarqawi and Sayf fled Afghanistan for Iran. There they discussed where Zarqawi should go next. After "long study and deliberation," Sayf later wrote, Zarqawi's group decided to relocate to Iraq, where their "appearance" and "dialect" would help them blend in. Zarqawi and Sayf anticipated that the Americans would "invade Iraq sooner or later" to overthrow the regime. "It was necessary for us to play a major role in the confrontation and resistance," Sayf recalled. "This is our historical opportunity ... to establish the state of Islam, which would play the greatest role in lifting injustice and bringing truth to this world, by God's permission. I was in agreement with brother Abu Mus'ab [al-Zarqawi] in this analysis."

For Sayf and presumably for Zarqawi, the "state of Islam" was the caliphate itself. Sayf used to believe that "the Islamic state of the caliphate" would develop from the Taliban's Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. But the American invasion in 2001 had ended that dream. Iraq was a second chance.

In 2002 and early 2003, Zarqawi set about building his clandestine network in Iraq. When the Americans invaded in March 2003, Zarqawi's cells in Baghdad were ready to greet them. Zarqawi himself arrived in June. By the end of August, his new group, Monotheism and Jihad, had bombed the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, as well as the mosque of Imam Ali, one of the holiest shrines of Shi'i Islam. The subsequent departure of the UN mission and rising fury of Iraq's majority Shi'a signaled the beginning of a bloody sectarian civil war.

Zarqawi's group had not pulled off the attack alone. It had help from former security officers in Saddam Hussein's government, casualties of the Bush administration's purge of Saddam party loyalists. They, like other disenfranchised Arab Sunnis, feared the rise of the country's Shi'i population who had lived under the yoke of Saddam and minority Sunni rule for decades. There was a reckoning coming, and Sunni jihadists and nationalists were willing to put aside their ideological differences for the time being to unite against a common foe: the Americans and the majority Shi'a who stood to benefit from the occupation.

Zarqawi's hatred of the Shi'a was all-consuming. To his mind, the Shi'a were not just fifth columnists, selling out the Sunnis to the Americans. They were servants of the Antichrist, who will appear at the end of time to fight against the Muslims. The Americans served the same master.

Zarqawi's hatred of the Shi'a made him lose sight of his long-term political goals. When he applied for membership in al-Qaeda in February 2004, he did not mention an Islamic state or a plan for achieving it. Rather, he explained his strategy for winning over the Sunnis, defeating the transitional government, and driving the infidels from Iraq: Provoke the Shi'a. "If we are able to strike them with one painful blow after another until they enter the battle, we will be able to reshuffle the cards. Then, no value or influence will remain to the Governing Council or even to the Americans, who will enter a second battle with the Shi'a. This is what we want, and, whether they like it or not, many Sunni areas will stand with the mujahidin." (Mujahidin, or "those who fight in a jihad," is how jihadists refer to themselves.)

Zarqawi knew he would be criticized as "hasty and rash," "leading the Muslim community into a battle for which it is not ready, a battle that will be revolting and in which blood will be spilled." So be it. "This is exactly what we want, since right and wrong no longer have any place in our current situation. The Shi'a have destroyed all those balances."

If al-Qaeda's leaders would assent to his strategy, Zarqawi offered to swear allegiance to them, joining his group to theirs: "If you agree with us on it, if you adopt it as a program and path, and if you are convinced of the idea of fighting the sects of apostasy, we will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner, complying with your orders, and indeed swearing fealty to you publicly and in the news media, vexing the infidels and gladdening those who preach the oneness of God."

Al-Qaeda's leaders were wary. Bin Laden and Zawahiri wanted to compel the U.S. military to leave the Middle East and to stop supporting local autocrats. Their strategy was to attack the Americans and stir Muslim resentment against them. Building popular Muslim support for their cause was vital; the caliphate could not be established without it. In contrast, Zarqawi wanted to first overthrow local autocrats and eliminate the "traitorous" Shi'a, whom he believed were collaborating with the Americans to subjugate the Sunnis. His strategy was to ignite a sectarian civil war. Popular support mattered far less to Zarqawi than it did to Bin Laden and Zawahiri. He could will a caliphate into being regardless of what its subjects might say.

Despite their reservations, Bin Laden and Zawahiri accepted Zarqawi's oath of allegiance, joining his Monotheism and Jihad group to their own in October 2004. Al-Qaeda had just mounted a disastrous terror campaign in Saudi Arabia and was desperate for a role in the growing Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Zarqawi may have wanted to tap into al-Qaeda's network of private Gulf funders, operational expertise, and recruitment apparatus. Thus, al-Qaeda in Iraq was born.

Zarqawi was elated. "Our noble brothers in al-Qaeda understand the strategy of the Monotheism and Jihad group in the land of the two rivers, the land of the caliphs," he declared in his pledge to al-Qaeda's leaders, "and their hearts are overjoyed by its method there." "Perhaps," wrote Zarqawi, the group would establish the "caliphate according to the prophetic method." As we will see later, Zarqawi was alluding to an Islamic prophesy of the caliphate's return shortly before the End of Days.

Although Bin Laden and Zawahiri shared Zarqawi's desire to reestablish the caliphate, they advised him to proceed slowly and build popular support. In July 2005, Zawahiri wrote Zarqawi, urging him to establish an Islamic "emirate" only after the jihadists had expelled the United States from Iraq. The jihadists were to then "develop" and "consolidate" the emirate as far as they could inside the Sunni areas of Iraq until it reached "the level of the caliphate." The mission of the jihadists thereafter was to protect the caliphate's domain and expand its borders until the Day of Judgment.

Despite encouraging Zarqawi to establish an emirate after the American withdrawal, Zawahiri warned him not to attempt it before securing the support of the Sunni masses. Al- Qaeda's "two short-term goals" of "removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic emirate or caliphate in Iraq" both required "popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq and the surrounding countries." "In the absence of this popular support," Zawahiri predicted, "the Islamic mujahid movement would be crushed in the shadows."

Zawahiri counseled Zarqawi to overlook the heresies of Sunni religious scholars, whose support al-Qaeda needed, and to cooperate with Sunni community leaders. Zarqawi should also stop broadcasting hostage beheadings. The beheadings may thrill "zealous young men," Zawahiri chided, but the Muslim masses "will never find them palatable." In general, the jihadists "shouldn't stir questions in the hearts and minds of the people about the benefit of our actions ... we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our [Muslim] community."


Excerpted from The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants. Copyright © 2015 William McCants. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface to the 2016 Edition xi

Acknowledgments xv

Transliteration xix

Introduction 1

1 Raising the Black Flag 5

2 Mahdi and Mismanagement 31

3 Bannermen 47

4 Resurrection and Tribulation 73

5 Sectarian Apocalypse 99

6 Caliphate Reborn 121

Conclusion 145

Appendices: Sunni Islamic Prophecies of the End Times 161

Appendix 1: The Final Days 163

Appendix 2: The Victorious Group 173

Appendix 3: The Mahdi Is Preceded by an Islamic State 177

Appendix 4: Twelve Caliphs 179

Notes 183

Index 235

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